Billboard owners seek more control over foliage

A battle of nature versus commerce is being waged quietly in the legislature over a proposal to allow billboard owners to cut more trees around their signs.

The billboard industry is making a push to get its proposal through the state House, one of the last steps before it would become law. This is the third year billboard owners have tried to get the law changed to allow more tree clearing around highway ads.

The change would bring North Carolina in line with the more liberal cutting rules in surrounding states, said Tony Adams, executive director of the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association. In exchange for allowing owners to remove trees and shrubs within 375 feet around signs – up from the current standard of 250 feet – the industry is offering to pay higher fees. The extra money would go into a fund for the state to plant new trees.

“An environmentalist should support this bill,” Adams said.

But plenty of environmentalists don't.

House Speaker Joe Hackney, noting opposition from “my green friends” and from Gov. Mike Easley's office, said he hasn't decided whether the bill will get a committee debate.

The state Department of Transportation and the billboard industry have an uneasy relationship over tree-clearing regulations. The industry first came to the legislature back in 2006 with its proposal because it could not get the state transportation staff to agree to the changes it wanted.

The disagreement between the industry and the agency continued this year, when a lawyer representing the billboard group, Betty Waller of Cary, tried to get the state to stop releasing its “illegal cutting inventory,” a list that includes the names of billboard owners and businesses where trees were felled. The billboard association wanted the sign company names and billboard permit numbers removed from the list, and to have the locations identified by mile markers.

Including billboard company names in the document implies billboard operators are engaged in criminal conduct, damages their character and prejudices legislators and the public, Waller wrote.

“Unfortunately, NCDOT has demonstrated an unyielding preference for vegetation, and has been unwilling to adopt a vegetation policy equally accommodating to commerce,” she wrote.

The transportation department continues to release the tree-cutting inventory, but attaches a disclaimer at the bottom that says the sign company, business, or individual names included are for identification purposes only.

Tree-cutting opponents, mostly garden club members who feel protective of roadside appearance, have sent hundreds of e-mail messages to state Rep. Margaret Dickson, chairwoman of the committee where the bill sits. Dickson, a Fayetteville Democrat, said the decision is up to Hackney.

“I-95 is such a perfect example of why this bill is so terrible,” wrote Barbara Massenburg of Wake Forest. “There are billboards in South Carolina and North Carolina advertising every two-bit joint and ‘massage' parlor.”

Adams started a pro-billboard e-mail campaign this week.

Adams said he was confident the bill would pass this year. But if not, he said, the industry will ask the legislature again next year.

“We're going to keep coming back until we get it done,” Adams said. “It's so critical that we cannot afford to give up.”